SEVEN Barrows maestro Nicky Henderson recorded his 59th victory at the Cheltenham Festival following a record seventh success in the G1 Unibet Champion Hurdle following Buveur D'Air's game win in the two-mile championship contest.
The first back-to-back winner of the hurdling highlight since Hardy Eustace in 2004 and 2005, Buveur D'Air, the 4/6 favourite was always prominent under Barry Geraghty and despite being headed by the Willie Mullins-trained Melon (7/1), the seven-year-old son of Crillon rallied tenaciously under Geraghty to win by a neck in a thrilling finish.
The Gordon Elliott-trained Mick Jazz (25/1) was three lengths further back in third; the first three clear.
A delighted Henderson said: "It was a brilliant race. They went a good gallop throughout and Buveur D'Air and Melon were able to then keep that gallop up in the closing stages, it was a great contest to keep that up the whole way.
"They were two very brave horses, with two brave jockeys. I think he did get headed but Barry said he was never worried as he thought he would always get there.
"Buveur D'Air had a battle on his hands, probably his first real battle this year. After his last race at Sandown, we were talking about him not having any really hard races this year, but today was one.
"Unlike some of his prep races, this was a proper race and he showed his class. He was headed but Barry was always happy. It was a proper race and Melon is a good horse, but Buveur D'Air just put his head down and battled.
"He didn't blow up, but he had a blow afterwards. He is a really good young horse, he did what he had to today.
"There's always pressure when you are trying to win these big races, so it's a big relief and it gives us confidence going into the week.
"We have four weeks until Aintree, so we could go back there again if there is soft ground in the going description. I'll speak to J P McManus and then we'll make a decision."
Winning owner J P McManus was also winning his seventh Champion Hurdle along with his 53rd Cheltenham Festival success and he was equally delighted.
McManus said: "I'm keeping up with Nicky! I'm thrilled as Barry missed out last year and whilst Noel gave him a great ride last year, it was nice that Barry was involved and got to share in it and enjoy it.
"Barry got the job done and looked strong as did Paul Townend on Melon and Barry just got the better of him.
"I thought we had it all to do after the last, but I was hoping that Barry's strength might get us through."
It may have been Buveur D'Air's second consecutive Unibet Champion Hurdle triumph, but it was Barry Geraghty's first aboard the Nicky Henderson-trained seven-year-old.
Geraghty missed the 2017 Festival after puncturing a lung and breaking six ribs in a fall at Kempton at the end of February, and Noel Fehily was aboard Buveur D'Air for his first Unibet Champion Hurdle victory.
Buveur D'Air, the 4/6 favourite for this year's renewal, had to be hard ridden to overcome the tenacious Melon by a neck.
The champion hurdler is owned by Geraghty's patron J P McManus, and Geraghty said: "It was a long year last year, but it's been a great year this time and I can't complain.
Coming here, you are banking on a winner. Bad luck was the only thing that was going to beat him [Buveur D'Air], and he didn't get bad luck and he won.
It's great to get a winner - I missed last season and it's great to get a big winner for your boss."
Geraghty and Buveur D'Air beat the Willie Mullins-trained Melon, a 7/1 chance, by a neck. It was Geraghty's third Unibet Champion Hurdle winner [after Punjabi and Jezki] and his 35th Festival victory in total.
He said: "I was concerned after they turned in, but the further up the straight I was going, the happier I was going, and I knew I could let Buveur D'Air pop the last and fill up in the process.
"There was nowhere to hide. The ground made it the ultimate test. The best horse was going to win, and thankfully I was on the best horse.
He's proved he is very good - you don't win these back-to-back unless you are very good, and he's won everything all season. He's a top-class horse and he deserves the recognition. He scrapped it out today; he's been flashy all season because he hasn't had to deal with much, but today he had opposition and he lived up to it.
"It is real winter conditions and very tacky down the back straight. Buveur D'Air won it the hard way. I was trying to save as much as I could off the turn in and then go for him as late as possible.
He found what was needed. I missed one [hurdle] down the back, which I did not expect. It was a proper race and the runner-up put it up. I thought he was coming to beat me, but my fella is battle-hardened and tough as nails.
"I think he proved there that he is a better horse than last year. He really dug deep and was a scrapper today."